What Can We Do About Poverty? Ask Brazil.

Patricia's picture

When I came to Canada I could not stop commenting to my family and friends how different Ottawa was compared to my home country Brazil. I saw no homeless people on the streets, nobody living under bridges or in public places, no slums - situations that are part of daily life in a developing country.

However, lately I have become more aware of the poverty that exists in Canada. Recently, I was walking downtown with my family and a man in torn and dirty clothes approached us, asking for money. Less than five minutes later, someone else did the same. On our way back my daughter saw one of them digging in the garbage. These are warning signs that should not be ignored. Should we let this reality become “normal”? Should we let the situation get worse? No. We need to take action.

Flags of Canada and BrazilA nation can change and improve its social conditions. However, serious action is required. An example of this initiative is the Brazilian Bolsa Família (Family Grant), a conditional cash transfer program launched by the federal government in 2003 that became law in 2004. It has proven to be extremely successful in the fight against poverty.

The program provides financial assistance through direct income transfer to families living in poverty and extreme poverty. It focuses on three essential dimensions to overcoming hunger and poverty by providing immediate relief through direct transfer of income; stimulating the exercise of basic social rights in the areas of Health and Education through socio-educational activities, contributing to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty; and through coordination with other social programs such as the Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) program. Through Zero Hunger, 47 million free school meals are provided every day (CONSEA, 2009), promoting literacy, school attendance, adequate nutrition and health.

Upon entering the Bolsa Família program, families have to comply with some conditions in order to keep receiving the benefit. These commitments are:

  1. School attendance of at least 85% for children and adolescents aged six to 15 years and a minimum of 75% for adolescents 16 and 17 years old;
  2. Regular medical visits to monitor growth and development of children under seven years of age and to ensure that vaccines are up to date;
  3. Regular prenatal visits for pregnant women and nursing mothers;
  4. Minimum attendance of 85% to socio-educational services for children and adolescents up to age 15 who were withdrawn from child labour or who are deemed at-risk.

In case the family does not follow these conditions, the government issues a warning, and if this is not observed, the benefit can be suspended or even cancelled.

The program encountered a lot of criticism when it was launched and some still claim that it fosters laziness, discourages employment, and facilitates unwise financial decisions (e.g., wasting it all on alcohol and drugs).

The numbers and statistics, however, tell a different story. According to the World Bank, Bolsa Família is among the most effective social protection programs in the world, having helped raise approximately 20 million people out of poverty between 2003 and 2009. In September 2010, at least 12.7 million families (or nearly 50 million people) benefited from the program. Bénédicte de la Brière from the World Bank states: "Adult work is not impacted by income transfers. In some cases adults will even work harder because having this safety net encourages them to assume greater risks in their activities".

There are many differences between Brazil and Canada. In 2010, Canada’s GDP per capita was 46,236. In Brazil it was US$10,7101. Brazil is a developing country with many social problems. However, the results of Bolsa Família show Canada that governments can substantially reduce poverty.

MP Kirsty Duncan with author of this article, Patricia Graça.Member of Parliament Ms. Kirsty Duncan is working hard to implement a national school meal program in Canada and recognizes the Brazilian example as a good one to follow. She says: “In Brazil, food is a constitutional right. A massive program feeds 47 million students at 190,000 schools each day. If a national school meals program could be implemented in Canada’s high schools at a cost of $1.25 per meal, with a goal of increasing graduation rates by 3%, the payback would be more than $500 million”.

Poverty eradication is a practical and achievable goal as the Brazilian example demonstrates. Canada has the means to eradicate poverty. It is just a matter of making it happen!

  1. 1. Source: World Bank
Patrícia Graça is CPJ's former Socio-Economic Policy Analyst.


Submitted by Mark Oliveira on
Unfortunately your article shows only one side of Canada and does not reflect the complete truth. While your article describes very well the Brazilian Family Grant it lacks of content on the benefits provided by the Canadian government to fight homelessness, social assistance grants to individuals and families in need, and the fight against child hunger - thus not perfect - it is a very mature system. The Ministry of Community and Social Services is a good starting point for your research and better understanding of the range of social assistance provided by the government to Canadians in need, not to say about non-governmental agencies direct and indirect financed by that ministry. United Way is a good example of a non-governmental organization and the charit of choice supported by municipal and federal government, by the way of donation from its public employees. United Way, in terms, complements government's social assistance through its own supported agencies. Hope it helps some further research and congratulations to Brazil for introducing a program sheltered from the stubborn corruption embedded in many levels of government.

Submitted by Carlos Pommer on
Two points to consider: 1) There are people who choose the street life. It's a fact! 2) Unfortunately, these kind of programs little do, if not, to take the poor from the poverty. If the government used the money to build better schools, pay well teachers, the results would be much better. But, these kind of actions do not buy votes.

Submitted by anu bose on
I observed the bolsas familias programme when I was an exchange scholar in Brazil. It is a very interesting programme based on creating incentives for people to assume a measure of responsibility for themselves and helping the next generation to breakout of the cycle of poverty. It does not demean the recipients as social assistance does nor does it foster dependency. The provincial governments of this country would do well to adopt this programme and the Mexican Opportunidades. Unfortunately, conservatives don't care and the left have no imagination. The latter believe that incentive is a bad word.

Submitted by August Guillaume on
Social Services provides a very minimum safety net. It has not kept up with housing costs. Social workers are totally overworked with too many clients per social worker. The ability to work as well as to receive social assistance is very limited, so there is little incentive to work if it only promises a few hours. Dependency is difficult to measure, so I am surprised there is no dependency in Brazil with such a program. The issue in Canada is keeping youth in school past age 16 so that the earning potential is increased greater than minimum wage. if homes have no extra income, youth are encouraged to find full time work rather than go to school. If parent(s) have no history of post secondary training, it is doubtful whether they believe further education is important. Homelessness is a complex situation in Canada. Drugs and Alcohol can have a disastrous effect on some. Medical issues (physical or mental) can stop a person in its tracks. Without a caring community (family, village) such folk are drawn to inner cities where programs exist to make life a liitle more bearable. I have yet to meet an employable person fit mentally and physically who is not looking for - wishing for a full time job.

Submitted by Donal King on
Patricia, Thank you so much for bringing the efforts of a country that is actually geographically larger than the USA, but clearly more concerned about poverty and its negative consequences. We are facing a critical election in Nov. that may make this even worse if we get a new Administration. I really appreciate the work of CPJ, its newsletter and activism. I have been teaching for 30 years at the college level and now must move on, but am not certain what God has in mind. Keep up the terrific work and do not be swayed from the strong vision of CPJ by critics who do not see the positive role God calls governments to play in promoting justice (along with all other creational structures). Peace and God Bless, Donal

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